Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFCs and diabetes/obesity


Links Between Perfluoroalkyl Substances and Diabetes/Obesity

Over 100 peer-reviewed studies published since 2006 in scientific journals have examined the relationship between per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and diabetes or obesity.

The human epidemiological studies have on PFASs and diabetes/obesity have been mixed, with some finding found that people with higher exposures to PFASs have a higher risk of diabetes or obesity, while others do not.

Laboratory studies on animals or cells show that PFAS exposures can cause biological effects related to diabetes/obesity, and have helped to identify the key periods of susceptibility and the mechanisms.

In a combined analysis of the human and animal evidence, "developmental exposure to PFOA adversely affects human health based on sufficient evidence of decreased fetal growth in both human and non-human mammalian species" (Lam et al. 2014). That is, there is evidence that PFOA exposure in the womb reduces the growth of the fetus. Whether there are other related effects later in life is not yet clear. A review of the human evidence on developmental exposure to PFASs finds that "epidemiological findings are consistent and suggest possible associations with fetal and postnatal growth and immune function" (Liew et al. 2018).

The Details

About Perfluoroalkyl Substances

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) have been used in the manufacturing of Teflon, Gore-Tex, and Scotchguard. They are perfluorinated compound (PFCs), also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). Low levels of exposure are ubiquitous in the blood of essentially all residents of industrialized countries, via food, drinking water, house dust, and air (Steenland et al. 2013). Levels in U.S. tap water have been increasing since the 1990s (Hu et al. 2019).

While initially assumed to be inert and non-toxic, these substances are now thought to have the ability to affect the immune system (and carcinogenicity) at exposure levels found in the general population. Existing drinking water limits may be 100-fold too high (Grandjean and Clapp 2015). Note that industry studies showing immunotoxicity were conducted decades ago, but not released to the public until recently-- long after PFASs contaminated groundwater systems throughout the world (Grandjean 2018). PFASs are persistent organic pollutants.

While PFASs are used in a variety of products, most uses are not essential-- there are alternatives available-- supporting a phase-out of PFASs (Cousins et al. 2019).

Type 1 Diabetes

A longitudinal study from Finland no association between early life exposure to 14 perfluorinated compounds and the development of type 1 diabetes (Salo et al. 2018). A small, cross-sectional study from Italy found that PFOS levels were higher in children and adolescents with new-onset type 1 diabetes than in controls without diabetes. PFOA levels were not associated (Predieri et al. 2015). A longitudinal study from Denmark found that PFOA levels in childhood were associated with lower beta cell function in adolescence (Domazet et al. 2016).

In an area with high PFAS exposure levels (see Mid-Ohio Valley Studies section below), a study of community members looked for autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes. They did find an association between the autoimmune disease ulcerative colitis, but not type 1 diabetes (Steenland et al. 2013). A furthers study also found no increased risk of type 1 diabetes with PFAS exposure-- in fact there was a decreased risk (Conway et al. 2016). PFASs are potentially immunotoxic, which could favor the development of autoimmune diseases (or suppress the immune system) (Corsini et al. 2014). (There is discussion about whether PFASs suppress or enhance the immune system (or both) -- both can be hazardous to health -- and both are immunotoxic (DeWitt et al. 2019).)

A laboratory study on non-obese diabetic mice (NOD mice), a model of type 1 diabetes, found that exposure during development to perfluoroundecanoic acid, PFUnDA increased the development of insulitis, which occurs before diabetes development in these mice. It also increased cell death in the islets. However, it did not lead to accelerated diabetes development overall (Bodin et al. 2016). A mixture of persistent organic pollutants (that included PFASs) led to early signs of autoimmunity development in NOD mice (Berntsen et al. 2018).

A report on immunotoxicity of PFOA and PFOS by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) finds that, "PFOA is presumed to be an immune hazard to humans based on a high level of evidence that PFOA suppressed the antibody response from animal studies and a moderate level of evidence from studies in humans. Although the strongest evidence for an effect of PFOA on the immune system is for suppression of the antibody response, there is additional, although weaker, evidence that is primarily from epidemiological studies that PFOA reduced infectious disease resistance, increased hypersensitivity-related outcomes, and increased autoimmune disease incidence" (NTP 2016). The report also finds that PFOS "is presumed to be an immune hazard to humans." A community health study from New Hampshire found that PFAS exposure was linked to autoimmune disorders in both women and children (Panikkar et al. 2019).

When exposed to intestinal cells in a laboratory, a mixture of PFOS and other chemical surfactants caused leakage through the tight junctions (although PFOS seemed to protect from this effect) (Glynn et al. 2017). A PFAS substitute also caused gut inflammation, changes in gut microbiota, and disturbed the gut barrier in mice (Pan et al. 2019). These changes are all linked to type 1 diabetes (see the Diet and the Gut page.

Prenatal exposure to PFASs is also associated with infectious disease in early life (Goudarzi et al. 2017); infections are linked to type 1 diabetes (see the Viruses and Bacteria page).

PFOS levels were associated with lower vitamin D levels in the U.S. population, especially in whites and the elderly, while PFHxS levels were associated with higher vitamin D levels (Etzel et al. 2018); low vitamin D levels are linked to type 1 diabetes (see the Vitamin D Deficiency page).

Type 2 Diabetes, Body Weight, and Metabolic Syndrome

Lower- Level Exposures in Humans

Longitudinal Studies in Adults

Risk of Diabetes vs PFAS Exposure Levels

PFOA and PFOS risk of diabetes
Dose–response relationships of PFOS (top) and PFOA (bottom) concentrations with type 2 diabetes risk in the Nurses’ Health Study II. The solid lines represents odds ratios (ORs), in this case the risk of diabetes, which is increased when the OR is above 1. The dotted lines are 95% confidence intervals.
The strongest evidence for the ability for environmental exposures to contribute to the development of diabetes comes from longitudinal studies. These are studies that take place over a period of time, where the exposure is measured before the disease develops.

Background exposures to PFOS and PFOA in the late 1990s were associated with higher type 2 diabetes risk during the following years in a prospective case-control study of women from the U.S.-based Nurses' Health Study II (Sun et al. 2018).

A long-term study of French women estimated exposure to PFASs based on French food contamination data and dietary consumption data. It found an association between type 2 diabetes and PFOA, especially in non-obese women, and an association between type 2 and PFOS in non-obese women (Mancini et al. 2018).

Overweight and obese adults with low level exposures (from Boston, MA and Baton Rouge, LA) with higher PFAS levels had greater weight regain after a diet, especially women (Liu et al. 2018). Also in U.S. residents, PFOS and PFOA were associated with insulin resistance, beta cell function, and HbA1c. Yet after 4.6 years of follow-up, these chemicals did not appear to affect the incidence of diabetes or changes in these markers (Cardenas et al. 2017). 

In the U.S. Diabetes Prevention Program, however, some PFAS levels were associated with the long-term development of type 2 diabetes-- but only in people who did not participate in the diet/exercise program. (Some PFASs were associated with microvascular disease development, even in people who did lifestyle changes) (Cardenas et al. 2019a). Also in this group, adults at high risk for diabetes with higher PFAS levels had higher increases in weight and hip girth over time, but a lifestyle intervention reduced these associations (Cardenas et al. 2019b). These studies illustrate that diet and exercise may mitigate the obesogenic and diabetogenic effects of environmental chemicals.

In Sweden, people with higher PFAS levels had a slightly lower risk of type 2 diabetes, although mostly the relationships were not statistically significant. Among those without diabetes, long-term PFAS exposure was associated with lower insulin resistance (Donat-Vargas et al. 2019a). Also, PFAS levels were associated with lower triglyceride levels, but no link between PFASs and cholesterol levels or high blood pressure (Donat-Vargas et al. 2019b).

A long-term study from Korea found that there were differences in PFHxS and PFDoDA levels between participants with and without diabetes, and while PFASs were not associated with BMI, they were associated with higher total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and triglycerides and with lower HDL ("good") cholesterol (Seo et al. 2018).

In U.S. adults with pre-diabetes in the Diabetes Prevention Program, at baseline, those with higher PFOA, PFHxS, and PFNA levels had higher total cholesterol levels. Over 15 years of follow-up, the baseline levels of PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS and PFNA, were associated with the development of high cholesterol and high triglycerides, but only in the placebo group and not the lifestyle intervention group. In other words, the findings suggest harmful effects of some PFASs in prediabetic adults. However, these detrimental effects of PFASs were lessened by a healthy lifestyle (Lin et al. 2019).

Interestingly, one year after bariatric weight loss surgery, people have lower PFAS levels than before surgery (in contrast to higher levels of other POPs). This might be explained by a reduced food intake and alterations in the absorption of nutrients (Jansen et al. 2019).

Longitudinal Studies in Children

Higher PFOA and PFHxS levels were associated with higher glucose levels in overweight and obese Hispanic children from urban Los Angeles (Alderete et al. 2019). In European children, higher PFOA levels were associated with higher systolic blood pressure (Warembourg et al. 2019).

Exposures During Development

Evidence is growing that exposure to pollution during critical developmental periods, such as in utero or during childhood, may have effects later in life.

A meta-analysis of 10 studies found that early life exposure to PFOA was associated with a higher risk of being overweight in childhood, and a higher BMI in childhood (Liu et al. 2018).

In Denmark, in utero exposure to PFOA was associated with higher weight, overweight/obesity, higher waist circumference, and higher insulin levels in female offspring at age 20 (with similar results in males but fewer data points). Other PFASs, including PFOS and PFNA did not show any associations (Halldorsson et al. 2012).

In British girls, exposure to PFOS in the womb is associated with lower birth weight, but then higher weight at age 20 months (Maisonet et al. 2012). Other studies have also found associations between PFASs and birth weight as well, usually lower birth weight (Apelberg et al. 2007; Bjerregaard-Olesen et al. 2019; de Cock et al. 2016; Fei et al. 2007; Lenters et al. 2016; Marks et al. 2019Minatoya et al. 2017; Rokoff et al. 2018; Shoaff et al. 2018; Starling et al. 2017; Wang et al. 2019; Washino et al. 2009; Woods et al. 2017). Further study of the British girls at age 9 found that prenatal PFOA and PFOS levels were associated with percent body fat in different ways, depending on the mother's level of education. PFHxS and PFNA were not associated (Hartman et al. 2017). One also found associations between PFASs and levels of adiponectin, a hormone that plays a role in glucose levels (Minatoya et al. 2017). Another did not find statistically significant associations between prenatal PFAS levels and adiponectin or leptin, another energy-related hormone, although the levels of both hormones were higher in infants with higher PFOA levels (Buck et al. 2018).

In Sweden and Norway, higher maternal PFOA and PFOS levels were associated with higher child overweight/obesity at 5 years of age (Lauritzen et al. 2018).

In Denmark, however, PFOA or PFOS levels in mothers during pregnancy were not associated with body mass index, waist circumference, or risk of overweight in their children at 7 years of age (if anything, the more highly exposed children were thinner than the others, although the difference was not statistically significant) (Andersen et al. 2013). These same authors had also found that maternal PFAS levels were associated with lower body weight in the first year of life (Andersen et al. 2010). A different study from Denmark found that childhood levels of PFOS was associated with higher waist circumference at ages 15 and 21. PFOA levels in childhood were associated with lower beta cell function in adolescence (Domazet et al. 2016).

In Boston, Massachusetts, PFAS levels in mothers were not associated with metabolic changes in children, although children with higher PFAS levels had lower insulin resistance (Fleisch et al. 2017). However, another study of the same cohort by the same authors found that maternal PFAS levels were associated with small increases in weight-related measurements in girls in mid-childhood (Mora et al. 2017). And, these authors also found that levels of various PFASs were associated with changes in various cholesterol measurements, and not all the changes were detrimental (Mora et al. 2018). A separate study from Cincinnati, Ohio found that higher PFOA levels in the womb were associated with a lower BMI up to age 2 (Shoaff et al. 2018). A study from upstate New York also found PFOA and PFOS levels at birth were associated with a lower BMI up to age 3 (Yeung et al. 2019). In Colorado, in male infants, maternal perfluorooctanoate and perfluorononanoate levels were positively associated with weight gain in infancy, and in female infants, maternal PFOS and PFHxS were associated with lower weight-for-age. In both sexes, 2-(N-methyl-perfluorooctane sulfonamido) acetate was associated with greater odds of rapid growth in infancy (Starling et al. 2019).

In New York City, PFAS were one of the pollutants suspected to have been released during the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) on 9/11. A study of women who were pregnant at that time found that several PFAS were associated with higher lipid levels in umbilical cord blood, especially triglycerides and both PFOA and PFHxS (Spratlen et al. 2019).

In Spain, prenatal PFAS levels were not generally associated with a higher BMI and other measures of metabolism through age 7 (Manzano-Salgado et al. 2017).

In Greenland and the Ukraine, neither PFOA nor PFOS levels in mothers during pregnancy were associated with their children being overweight at ages 5-9. However, the children did have higher waist-to-height ratios (Høyer et al. 2015). 

In the Faroe Island, maternal PFOS and PFOA (but not PFHxS, PFNA or PFDA) levels after childbirth were associated with higher BMI in the offspring at 18 months and 5 years of age (Karlsen et al. 2017). Another Faroe Island study found associations between PFAS levels in mothers and children and levels of leptin, adiponectin and resistin up to age 5, but not at older ages (Shelly et al. 2019).

In Japan, PFOS levels were associated with reduced fatty acid levels in pregnant women. These polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for fetal growth. The female babies also had a lower birth weight if exposed to higher levels of PFOS (these associations were not found with PFOA or in male babies) (Kishi et al. 2015). In Taiwan, PFAS levels were associated with lower birth weight in girls. Levels were not associated with weight through age 11 in either sex, but were associated with lower height (Wang et al. 2016). In Canada, maternal PFOA levels were associated with a lower birth weight (Ashley-Martin et al. 2017).

In China, umbilical cord levels of PFASs were associated with various measures of growth at birth and at 19 months. Associations varied by specific PFAS and by sex (Cao et al. 2018). In Shanghai, prenatal exposure to perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS), a replacement chemical for PFOS, was associated with increased various weight-related measures in 5 year old girls (Chen et al. 2019).

Cross-Sectional Studies in Adults

Cross-sectional studies are studies that measure exposure and disease at one point in time. These provide weaker evidence than longitudinal studies, since the disease may potentially affect the exposure, and not vice versa.

A cross-sectional study of elderly Swedes found that the PFASs perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and PFOA were significantly related to diabetes in a non-linear manner. PFOA was also related to insulin secretion, but none of the PFASs were associated with insulin resistance. The exposures encountered in this study were typical of the general population (Lind et al. 2014). These authors also found that various PFASs were associated with various measures of metabolism, suggesting that each PFAS may have different effects (Salihovic et al. 2018).

A cross-sectional study of Canadian adults found associations between some PFASs and cholesterol levels, but not glucose levels or metabolic syndrome (Fisher et al. 2013). 

A cross-sectional study of Americans also found associations between some PFASs and cholesterol levels, but not insulin resistance or body size (Nelson et al. 2010). (It seems like associations between PFASs and higher cholesterol levels are pretty consistent across studies, especially in studies of more highly exposed people, but also among less exposed, e.g., Eriksen et al. 2013). Despite using in part some of the same dataset as Nelson et al., (NHANES), Lin et al. (2009) found links between PFASs and various measures of blood glucose in Americans. For example, they found that in adolescents, higher PFNA levels were associated with higher blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels. In adults, higher PFNA levels were associated with higher beta cell function, and higher PFOS levels were associated with higher insulin levels, higher beta cell function, and insulin resistance. Another study using NHANES data found that different types (isomers) of PFOA were variously associated with higher blood glucose levels (and others with lower HbA1c), higher beta cell function, higher HDL and total cholesterol. Various types of PFOS were associated with higher beta cell function, lower HDL, and lower triglycerides. Both PFOS and PFOA were indicators of metabolic syndrome (Liu et al. 2018). And, also with NHANES data, PFOA (but not other PFAS) levels were associated with diabetes in men (not women) and with total cholesterol in adults (He et al. 2018). Another analysis of NHANES data, looking at multiple years, found that PFNA was associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome and well as several individual components, while the highest levels of PFHxS were associated with elevated triglycerides. Other PFASs were associated with decreased risk of at least one outcome (Christensen et al. 2018). Both obesity and gender affect the relationship between PFASs and cholesterol levels in NHANES: in obese males (but not in non-obese males), there were positive associations between total and LDL cholesterol with PFOA and PFNA. In obese females, total cholesterol levels increased in tandem with levels of PFDA, PFNA, and Me-PFOSAA, and there was a positive association of LDL cholesterol with PFOS, PFDA, and PFNA (Jain and Ducatman, 2018). Also in NHANES, total cholesterol levels were positively associated with PFAS levels (Dong et al. 2019).

In people living on an island off Croatia, PFOS, PFOA, and PFNA levels were associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, with only PFNA reaching statistical significance. PFNA levels were also associated with an increased risk of overweight or obesity (Chen et al. 2019).

Working-aged Taiwanese adults with higher PFOS levels had a higher risk of impaired glucose homeostasis and diabetes. However, those with PFOA, PFNA, and PFUA had a lower risk (Su et al. 2016). In Chinese adult men, PFAS levels were associated with various markers of metabolism (Wang et al. 2017). Another study of Chinese adult men found that PFAS levels were associated with metabolic syndrome (Yang et al. 2018). Also in China, PFAS those with higher levels (especially PFOA) had a higher risk of being overweight or having an increased waist circumference-- especially women (Tian et al. 2019).

A trial of elderly adults from Korea found that while PFAS levels were associated with insulin resistance, supplementation with vitamin C reversed these effects (Kim et al. 2016).

Cross-Sectional Studies in Children

A cross-sectional study of Danish children found that in overweight children, higher PFAS levels were associated with higher insulin levels, higher beta cell activity, higher insulin resistance, and higher triglycerides. There was no association between these and PFASs in normal-weight children (Timmermann et al. 2014). A study of obese U.S. children found that PFAS levels were associated with various metabolic measurements, including cholesterol levels, but not blood glucose levels (Khalil et al. 2018). Also in U.S. children, levels of PFOA and PFNA were associated with total cholesterol levels (Jain and Ducatman 2018). In U.S. adolescents, higher PFOS levels in boys were associated with higher diastolic blood pressure (Ma et al. 2019).

A study of two year old Korean children found that those with higher levels of various PFASs were shorter, and those with higher levels of PFNA weighed less than those with lower exposures (Lee et al 2018). Also in Korean children, PFUnDA levels were associated with higher total and LDL cholesterol levels (Kang et al. 2018).

In children from Cincinnati, Ohio, PFAS levels were associated with metabolic features and pathways related to energy production (Kingsley et al. 2019). Which brings us to other studies of this region:

Mid-Ohio Valley Studies: Higher-Level Exposures in Humans

An area of the Mid-Ohio Valley has been contaminated by high levels of PFOA. Research suggests an increased risk of mortality due to type 2 diabetes in workers occupationally exposed to PFOA, as compared to other DuPont workers (Steenland and Woskie, 2012). Previous research suggest an association between diabetes and PFOA exposure in workers as well (Lundin et al. 2009). Workers in the Mid-Ohio Valley were exposed to PFOA in a chemical plant that produced Teflon. Emissions from this plant polluted the drinking water of the nearby community. Recent studies of these community members have looked for diabetes risk, as well as other health issues. These studies are known as the C8 Health Project (C8 is another term for PFOA) (see Frisbee et al. 2009 for a description of study design).

A cross-sectional study of the exposed Mid-Ohio Valley community members did not find an association between PFOA and type 2 diabetes or fasting glucose levels (MacNeil et al. 2009), nor did a long-term study of this population (Karnes et al. 2014). A more detailed study found that those with diabetes (especially type 1) had lower levels of PFASs than those without diabetes (Conway et al. 2016). Early-life PFOA levels were not associated with obesity or overweight in adulthood (Barry et al. 2014). However they did find associations between PFOA levels and high cholesterol (Winquist and Steenland 2014). For an article describing this findins, see PFOA and High Cholesterol: Basis for the Finding of a Probable Link, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (Betts 2014).

A long-term study from Cincinnati looked at associations in the offspring of women living downstream from a PFAS manufacturing plant. They found that higher maternal PFOA levels were associated with higher weight and waist circumference in their children, as well as greater BMI gains from ages 2-8 (Braun et al. 2016). Another long-term study from the Cincinnati area found PFAS levels were not associated with BMI, but were associated with altered kidney and thyroid function (Blake et al. 2018). In Cincinnati girls, PFOA levels were associated with lower BMI (Fassler et al. 2019; Pinney et al. 2019).

The World Trade Center

Large amounts of various chemical contaminants, including PFASs, were released at the time of the World Trade Center disaster in 2011. In children and adolescents who were exposed to the contaminants, those with higher levels of PFOAs had increased triglycerides, total. cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol. Perfluorohexanesulfonic acid levels, however, were associated with lower insulin resistance (Koshy et al. 2017).

Gestational Diabetes

Preconception levels of PFOA were associated with gestational diabetes in a prospective U.S. study of women with background levels of PFAS exposure. Six other PFASs were also associated with an increased risk, although not statistically significant (Zhang et al. 2015). In Canadian women, first-trimester levels of most PFASs were not associated with gestational diabetes. However, this study found a higher risk of impaired glucose tolerance during pregnancy in women with moderate (second-quartile) levels of perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) (Shapiro et al. 2016). The Canadian women with higher PFOS levels also had higher gestational weight gain (Ashley-Martin et al. 2016). A study of pregnant women from Spain found that PFOS and PFHxS levels were associated with impaired glucose tolerance and gestational diabetes (Matilla-Santander et al. 2017). In Danish women with a high risk of gestational diabetes, PFHxS levels were associated with increased fasting glucose, fasting insulin, and insulin resistance. PFNA levels were associated with higher fasting insulin and beta cell function. Other PFASs were not associated, and there were no associations in pregnant women who were otherwise at low risk of gestational diabetes (Jensen et al. 2018).

Colorado pregnant women with higher PFOA, PFNA, PFDeA, and PFHxS levels had lower blood glucose levels (Starling et al. 2017), although a different U.S. study found women with a family history of type 2 diabetes who had higher levels of PFOA, PFNA, PFHpA, and PFDoDA had a higher risk of gestational diabetes (Rahman et al. 2019).

In Norway, pregnant women with higher levels of PFASs had higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol) and total cholesterol (not so good) (Starling et al. 2014).

In Chinese pregnant women, PFOA levels were associated with higher insulin levels, higher insulin resistance, and higher blood glucose levels, while PFOA tended to be associated with lower glucose levels (Wang H et al. 2018). Another study from China found that while maternal PFAS exposure was not associated with risk of gestational diabetes, there were significant positive associations between exposure to specific types of PFASs and increasing blood glucose (Wang Y et al. 2018). A third found that short-chain types of certain PFASs were associated with both gestational diabetes risk and impaired glucose tolerance in pregnant women (Liu et al. 2019). Various PFASs were associated with higher glucose levels in pregnant women, also probably in China (Uppal et al. 2018).

Now here's something really interesting: in the Faroe Islands, there were correlations between maternal and umbilical cord levels of PFASs, indicating significant transfer of these compounds from the mother to the fetus. Importantly, they also found that there was significantly higher transfer in mothers with gestational diabetes (Eryasa et al. 2019).

Laboratory Studies: Diabetes/Obesity

The Madrid Statement

In 2015, fourteen experts published the Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), subsequently signed by 206 scientists and professionals from 40 countries (Blum et al. 2015Birnbaum and Grandjean 2015). 

The Statement documents the scientific consensus about the environmental persistence, bioaccumulation, and potential toxicity of these substances.
Adult male rats exposed to PFNA experienced high blood sugar by increasing the release of glucose from the liver (Fang et al. 2012). PFOA-treated mice had increased blood glucose and insulin levels, increased insulin resistance, and higher levels of leptin and adiponectin (Du et al. 2018).

PFOA exposure reduced the production of glycogen in the liver of mice, and actually increased insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. While these effects may appear to be beneficial, the mechanism by which they occurred may have harmful effects in the long run-- several protein levels were also affected, and these proteins are potentially involved in diabetes and liver disease (Yan et al. 2015). Other authors also found that PFOA affects liver and beta cells in animals, and impaired liver function. Specifically, PFOA caused higher insulin and LDL cholesterol levels, and reduced glucagon, glucose, and HDL cholesterol levels (Wu et al. 2017). These authors also found that PFOA exposure also decreased fasting blood glucose, raised insulin levels, increased liver enzymes, and changed lipid levels in mice (Wu et al. 2018). Other authors found that PFOA causes higher blood glucose levels in mice, lower glycogen levels in the liver, and also-- this is new-- promoting energy consumption, especially carbohydrate consumption (Zheng et al. 2017). At low doses, PFOS and PFOA were toxic to stem cells, and affected fat cell development (Liu et al. 2018).

At low levels, PFOS affects both metabolism and the immune system of zebrafish. The data imply that the currently applicable tolerable levels of PFOS in commercial goods should be re-evaluated (Martínez et al. 2019).

Mice fed high doses of PFASs show reduced body weight and lower fat mass, via reduced food intake (Shabalina et al. 2015). (While high doses of some chemicals can cause lower weight, it may be that lower doses have opposite effects). In other mice, PFOA exposure at levels that humans encounter did not affect cholesterol or triglyceride levels, but did affect them at very high doses (Pouwer et al. 2019).

PFOS was found to reduce some of the unhealthy effects of a high fat diet in mice (Huck et al. 2018). 

PFOS causes changes in the liver and the intestine in zebrafish, an animal model used to study the effects of toxic chemical exposures (Cui et al. 2016). PFASs also affect the deposition of triglycerides in the liver of mice (Das et al. 2017; Hui et al. 2017). In frogs, PFOA caused lipid accumulation in the liver, and higher total cholesterol and triglyceride levels (Zhang et al. 2018a).

In adult mice, PFOS exposure caused metabolic disturbances, particularly in lipid and glucose metabolism, and perturbed gut metabolism, inducing changes associated with inflammation and metabolism (Lai et al. 2018).

A "molecular dynamics" model, which evaluated all the biological effects and pathways linked to PFASs, found that four genes were at the center of this network, including genes linked to diabetes and obesity (Liu et al. 2019).

Sodium ρ-perfluorous nonenoxybenzene sulfonate (OBS), a newly discovered kind of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compound [btw, there are more than 3000 PFASs...], is a surfactant for increasing oil production and an environmental contaminant. In mice, OBS accumulated in the gut and liver, causing gut barrier dysfunction and liver dysfunction (Wang et al. 2019).

PFAS Alternatives

The PFOS replacement chemical, 6:2 chlorinated polyfluorinated ether sulfonate (6:2 Cl-PFESA), increased liver lipid accumulation, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and decreased HDL and total cholesterol in mice (Zhang et al. 2018b). It appears that this replacement chemical is more toxic to the liver than the one it replaces... which is a similar problem with the PFOA replacement chemical hexafluoropropylene oxide trimer acid (HFPO-TA), which may be more of an obesogen than PFOA (Li et al. 2019).

Another PFOS replacement chemical, PFBS, promotes the differentiation of pre-fat cells into fat cells and increased triglyceride levels (Qi et al. 2018). Developmental exposure to PFBS also disrupts the development of the pancreas and energy homeostasis in zebrafish (Sant et al. 2018), and, as noted above, is associated with higher weight-related measures in girls (Chen et al. 2019). A PFOS replacement chemical used in China, F-53B, adversely impacts zebrafish livers, with the disruption dependent on sex and developmental stage (Shi et al. 2019).

Wonderful. But not surprising. This is a common problem with replacement chemicals; they end up having the same problems as the chemicals they replace.

In Vitro Studies of Cells

PFOA can affect beta cells in the laboratory, decreasing cell viability and increasing cell death (Suh et al. 2017). 

Laboratory studies show that PFASs may have effects on the immune system that are consistent with autoimmune diseases. Human cells exposed to PFOS had these effects at exposures at the high end of human exposure range (Midgett et al. 2015).

PFOA increases the development of fat cells, which then accumulate triglycerides (Yamamoto et al. 2015). PFOS also increases fat cell development, and fat accumulation as well (Xu et al. 2016). In bone marrow stem cells, PFOS repressed bone building and enhanced fat cell development (Liu et al. 2019). 

PFOS essentially causes insulin resistance in cells; scientists are working to identify the exact mechanisms involved (Qiu et al. 2016).

Exposures During Development

Prenatal Exposure to PFOA Causes Obesity in Mice

obese mouse

Mice exposed prenatally to PFOA were more likely than controls to become obese when they reached adulthood.
Source: Christopher G. Reuther, EHP via Holtcamp 2012, EHP; Hines et al. 2009.
Pregnant/mother rats were exposed to PFOS, to see the effects on the offspring (exposed in the womb and while nursing). The offspring had low body weight from birth to weaning, and had impaired glucose tolerance, and higher insulin levels, resembling pre-diabetes (Lv et al. 2013). When pregnant mice were exposed to low doses of PFOA, their offspring had metabolic effects that differed by sex (van Esterik et al. 2016). 

Mice exposed to low doses of PFOA in the womb had reduced body weight at birth followed by excess body weight at mid-life, as well as higher insulin levels at mid-life. There was no effect of PFOA on these parameters from exposure during adulthood, showing that developmental exposures may be most critical (Hines et al. 2009).

When mother mice were exposed to PFOS during pregnancy, they had higher insulin resistance than untreated controls, suggesting a gestational-diabetes-like pattern. Early in life, their male offspring had higher insulin levels, although the female offspring had normal levels. Later in life, as adults, both groups of offspring had higher fasting glucose and insulin levels than controls. The pups fed a high-fat diet showed even greater effects than those fed a normal diet (Wan et al. 2014).

In mice, PFOS exposure in the womb appears to affect oxidative stress more in the fetus than the pregnant mother, and this could affect fetal development (Lee et al. 2015).

Studies in zebrafish show that PFOS exposure during development also affects the development of the pancreas in ways that may predispose to diabetes (Sant et al. 2016Sant et al. 2017). Also in fish, PFOA exposure during development affects glucose levels in offspring, possibly in future generations as well (Lee et al. 2017).

Chemicals in Combination

The effects of PFASs may be greater in combination with other chemicals. In fish, separate exposure to PFOS or tributyltin in early life elevated fatty tissue areas at low doses, but not at the highest doses. Combined exposure significantly promoted fat accumulation in newly hatched larvae, even when the doses of TBT and PFOS were both at the levels that did not show obesogenic effects (Qui et al. 2018). 

Sterilizing wastewater with sodium hypochlorite can react with pharmaceuticals to generate disinfection by-products and can cause the final effluent to be even more harmful to aquatic organisms. One study, for example, found that the metabolism of Daphnia magna is sensitive to changes in the final effluent that are caused by sterilization. With the addition of PFOS, the metabolic profile is further altered (Wagner et al. 2019).

Exposure during development to a mixture of PFAS, triclosan, and phthalates (based on the levels of these compounds found in pregnant Swedish women) affected metabolic rate, increased the number of fat cells and fatty tissue young zebrafish fed a calorie-rich diet (Mentor et al. 2019).

Diabetes Management and Complications

Interestingly,the medicinal plant Tagetes erecta L., used for the management of diabetes, accumulate PFOA, PFOS, and PFBS, and is a potential source of exposure (Mudumbi et al. 2019).

Cardiovascular Disease

Some cross-sectional human studies show associations between PFASs and heart disease/cardiovascular disease in the U.S. (e.g., Huang et al. 2018). In China, PFASs are associated with high blood pressure (Bao et al. 2017).

One longitudinal study from Sweden found no associations for seven of eight PFASs measured and heart disease (Mattsson et al. 2015), while another long-term Swedish study found higher PFAS levels associated with increased heart disease risk factors (Lind et al. 2018). Also in Sweden, PFASs are associated with other signs of cardiovascular disease (Lind et al. 2017). 

Kidney Disease

In people with high exposure levels, PFASs are associated with better kidney function in people with chronic kidney disease and diabetes, with a stronger relation observed when anemia is present (Conway et al. 2018), and in those with diabetes, a lower risk of heart disease as well (Honda-Kohmo et al. 2019). However, it seems that at lower, more common levels of exposure, PFASs are associated with worse kidney function (Jain and Ducatman, 2018), and in some high-exposure populations, PFASs are associated with worse kidney function and chronic kidney disease Wang et al. 2019). PFASs in combination with some heavy metals are also associated with worse kidney function in U.S. adults (Jain 2019). Higher PFAS levels are associated with reduced kidney function in healthy U.S. adolescents as well (Kataria et al. 2015). Not only might the relationship between PFASs and kidney problems be non-linear, as kidney disease advances, it may cause more excretion of PFASs as well (Jain and Ducatman 2019). A laboratory study found that exposure to PFOA or PFOS aggravated diabetic kidney injury in cells (Gong et al. 2019).

For those who are undergoing dialysis, the membrane used in the procedure is linked to PFAS levels. Those who used hydrophobic polysulfone (PS) dialysis membranes had lower PFOS and PFOA levels and lower blood glucose levels than those who used other dialysis membranes (Liu et al. 2018). So it seems some dialysis membranes can actually remove PFASs from the blood (Ferrari et al. 2019).

Liver Disease

A long-term Swedish study found that "normal" PFAS levels are associated with changes to liver function (Salihovic et al. 2018).

A laboratory study exposed rats with (type 1) diabetes to PFASs and found that the exposure caused the accumulation of triglycerides and total cholesterol in the liver, not a good thing (Fang et al. 2015). Chicken embryos exposed to PFOS, especially at the lowest doses, affect genes that control fatty acid metabolism in the liver, also not a good thing (Jacobsen et al. 2018). PFAS exposures are linked to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (Armstrong and Guo, 2019), both with biomarkers in humans (Bassler et al. 2019), and to fatty liver-related problems in mothers and offspring exposed during development in mice (Liang et al. 2019).


Italian men who worked in a chemical plant producing PFAS had not only very high exposure levels, but also an increased risk of death, and those with the highest levels of PFOA had a higher rate of death by various specific diseases, including diabetes (Girardi and Merler, 2019).


To download or see a list of all the references cited on this page, see the collection Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and diabetes/obesity in PubMed.